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Wintersun – Time I

I might as well get this out of the way at the beginning; starting a review of this particular album without a cringe-worthy pun on its title, whether intentional or not, is probably an exercise in futility. So here we go – “Wintersun’s sophomore album has been a long Time coming.”

Yes, that was awful, but it’s not as though Jari Mäenpää, the man currently at the forefront of Finnish melodic death metal, hasn’t invited it a thousand times over. Since the ex-Ensiferum frontman’s departure from that band and his release of Wintersun’s now iconic self-titled debut in 2004, the follow up has achieved almost totemic status as the metal scene’s most beleaguered project. Originally slated for release in its entirety around late 2006/early 2007, Time’s years upon years of delays, based mainly on the pretext that the mix is so staggeringly complex that the gear Jari had available was incapable of properly rendering it, has turned the album into a standing joke at the expense of the Finnish auteur’s obsessive-compulsive perfectionism running roughshod over all other considerations. The title becoming increasingly prophetic and ironic with each passing day certainly didn’t help matters. At eight years of stringing fans along, Wintersun’s epic wild goose chase bears out comparisons with the fiascos surrounding Chinese Democracy or Duke Nukem Forever.

Or rather it would, but for the fact that Time I is really very good indeed. It’s important to append caveats to that statement up front, because this is an album that attracts hyperbole: it does not represent a revolution. Its impact does not reflect the grossly overextended length of time it’s spent in production. It’s not the best metal album ever; it’s not even the best metal album of the year. It’s also important to remember that what we have now is only half of the complete product Jari has been building up since I was midway through high school. The eighty-minute-plus behemoth we were promised has been split into two profit-friendly chunks (seemingly at the insistence of Nuclear Blast records, not that I can really blame them for wanting to recoup their investment), with the second slated for release late next year. What we have here are three long tracks and two short instrumental pieces totalling only forty minutes. As a fan, it can be galling to realise that the thing you’ve waited for for years can be over so briskly. Divorced from the recognition of the farcical surrounding circumstances however, the truth remains that Wintersun  (FI) have released three really damn good songs.

Time I certainly opens with its best foot forward anyway. The four minute intro When Time Fades Away envelopes the listener in its smooth, silky folds, ingratiating us to the album’s synth-heavy nature. Theatrical, Asian-inflected orchestrations, clearly influenced by the soundtracks of wuxia and chambara movies, swell to a splendidly exultant climax that segues into the first song proper, Sons of Winter and Stars. Already it’s clear that Wintersun are treading in territory very different from that of their debut. Devoted fans of that album might not take kindly to this one’s reduced emphasis on intricate, speedy guitar work, but speaking for myself, I find the move to an airier, less frantic sound to be a positive step. Not that I don’t like the debut – far from it, it’s one of the most frequently listened-to on my iPod – but I found its histrionic and sometimes tasteless sweep-picked Malmsteen-isms to be a curse as much as they were a blessing. Wintersun’s sound, it always seemed to me, was slightly skeletal, the bones of extraordinary songwriting waiting to be filled in with a fuller harmonic range. This, in essence, is what Time I provides.

To wit: Sons of Winter and Stars is the best song Jari Mäenpää has ever put his name to. A hulking, heroic epic clocking in at thirteen-and-a-half minutes long, the track is cut from the same cloth as the massive closing tracks so beloved of progressive and symphonic power metal acts, but one-ups almost any you might care to name in sheer lush, harmonic opulence. The tremendous amount of overdubbing going on recalls Blind Guardian’s recent output more than anything else, though the metal at its core is clearly rooted more in the folk/melodic death stylings of Ensiferum than the gallop of German speed metal. Its progressive structure with multiple, named sections also echoes the debut album’s Starchild, as does its move through fast and slow tempos, but at the same time, it’s bigger and bolder in every possible dimension, Starchild on steroids.

Sons of Winter and Stars scratches a very specific itch for me. Grandiose, heroic and symphonic are among my favourite flavours when it comes to metal, but the power metal songs which enshrine them often do so only in a superficial way; sunny triumphalist odes which don’t acknowledge darkness or pain. The Wintersun found on Time I are an altogether different animal. The crux of their sound, much like that of Pathfinder or Rhapsody of Fire, is the creation of awe. Awe there certainly is, by the bushel, but it’s an awe that carries an altogether different inflection than that of the aforementioned acts. It’s colder, more somber. Wintersun aren’t interested in trumpeting victory over some imagined dark lord, but rather in bearing witness to the full glory of creation. If there’s an aesthetic purpose to the hundreds of layers of orchestration permeating every moment of the album’s running time, it’s their evocation of the cosmos, in all its splendor, being just so damn full. Some listeners have likened Time I to an actual journey through stars and nebulae. Certainly the lyrics touch on similar imagery, but that’s of little importance – the lyrics, in expectedly broken English, are sophomoric, falling into the usual trap of stringing together important-sounding words and doing little else. This is regrettable, and harms the listening experience not in the slightest, because the music illuminates their themes in their stead. Icy strings twinkle like stars in the firmament; orchestra stings punch through speakers like supernovae.

There’s a duality to Time I as well though. While there is joy and reverence in all the vastness and richness, there’s also a bittersweet melancholy, an acknowledgement of one’s own transience in the face of infinity. Where Sons of Winter and Starsrallies a gang of fellow Finnish musicians to end on a triumphant choral shout, the track that follows, Land of Snow and Sorrow, is still and reflective, a pointed contrast to the rollercoaster ride preceding it. It takes a few cues, seemingly, from epic doom, synths and lead guitars layering melodies over the bedrock of a single crushing, down-tempo riff, drummer Kai Hahto reigning in the blastbeats in favour of a steady, subdued beat. The informative blog Black Wind Metal  observed that there was a similarity in Time I to the work of American progressive doom outfit While Heaven Wept, a comparison I wish I’d come up with myself  because it’s so appropriate. The dignified, quietest yearning evoked by Land of Snow and Sorrow is a dead ringer for that found in While Heaven Wept tracks like Finality.

That Wintersun are able to pull off this balance with poise, they owe in large part to Jari’s evolution as a singer. While his clean vocals in his work with Ensiferum and on the debut album occurred as impassioned, they were also rather rough-and-ready, more like an imitation of power metal singers than the genuine article. Here though, they have a husky, baritone majesty all their own, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the chorus of the title track. Time functions as a sort of reconciliation of the opposing aesthetics of Sons… and Land…, with something of the adventurous and heroic spirit of the former and the contemplative sobriety of the latter. It features its fair share of booming orchestration and the album’s only “true” guitar solo, which comes at the six-minute mark, and although short, it is flawlessly incorporated into the song. However, there are protracted sections where Jari is required to hold the song up on the strength of his voice alone. He bears up admirably, transitioning dramatically from banshee screams to a soulful, swooning baritone, reminding of no-one so much as Daniel Gildenlow(!).

The three central songs then, taken on their own merits, present precious little to object to. I might complain about the mix being rather tactless; the countless layers of synths can feel like they’re jockeying for position rather than complementing each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jari tried to afford everything equal prominence out of sheer obstinacy; the album’s special edition comes with a series of videos of the band performing the songs in-studio with considerably more emphasis on the central instruments. At the time being, these are the versions of the songs I prefer, lending the performances more grit and physicality without drastically compromising their grandeur. Whichever version I listen to though, one impression remains the same; these are simply fantastically well-written songs, massively ambitious in conception but equally airtight in execution. Six years of tweaking and tuning will do that, I suppose.

The question remains though; what does it all add up to? The most telling answer to that question, perhaps, is the arithmetic one, which is: “barely half an hour.” The paucity of content on the disc is impossible to ignore, and not just because of the wait leading up to Time I’s release. Forty minutes, after all, isn’t a short album, not really, but the songs here cry out for a larger context. This isn’t like Yes’ Close to the Edge, where three epic-length tracks were arranged in perfect equilibrium. The songs on Time I are huge, yes, but they’re also sprawling and long-winded, and the latter two songs in particular simply don’t contain enough variation in tempo or tone to justify the album’s status as a full-length. These massive tracks would make more sense against a correspondingly massive backdrop, which we may well have after Time II is released; as it is, there’s an unmistakable feeling of incompleteness. It isn’t helped by the fact that instrumentals and interludes comprise almost a quarter of the running time. In fairness, When Time Fades Away and Darkness and Frost were part of the album before the split into two halves was announced, but the extraneous and uneventful outro tacked on at the end of the title track has the definite feel of a last-minute addition, a mercenary move to push the album over the forty-minute mark.

Am I disappointed by Time I? Yes, I suppose so, a little, if only because its impact was muted by this damned “half now, half later” arrangement. Am I displeased by Time I? By Christ and all the Heavenly Host, no! For all that it’s easy to be deflated that Jari Mäenpää’s titanic creation is finite after all, there are at least a score of individual moments throughout its running time where every nerve ending in my body screamed yes, a thousand times yes, this is everything we were waiting for. I’ve listened to Time I dozens of times by now, and that feeling of vindication has yet to wear off. Eight years is excessive to make your fans wait for anything, but I hope that posterity will come to regard Wintersun’s opus magnum as just that, and place its messy production history aside. In any case, I will be waiting for the second part of the tapestry to be unveiled with bated breath, just as I did this one.

Rating: 4.5/5
Written By: Andrew
Label: Nuclear Blast / Format: CD / Cat. #: NUCLEAR BLAST 27361 21060
Tracklisting:

1 When Time Fades Away
2 Sons of Winter and Stars
3 Land of Snow and Sorrow
4 Darkness and Frost
5 Time